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Wednesdays with Wade: Explaining the Disney theme show

Wednesdays with Wade: Explaining the Disney theme show

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You know what bothers me about the Disney theme parks these days? No, it's not when they close one of my favorite attractions (Whether it be Disneyland's "Flying Saucers" which I loved as a kid or WDW's "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" which I loved more than the Disneyland version or Disneyland's "Country Bear Jamboree" which always made me smile).

I mean, sure, the closing of those attractions were heart-breaking. But what bothers me even more is the small ways that the story of a Disney theme park gets lost and destroyed over the years.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that --as the forthcoming "Imagineering Field Guide to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World" book was being written -- the Imagineers couldn't find some of the stories that had been written about WDW attractions and merchandise locations in their files. So when they needed to know the story of the Christmas Shop in Liberty Square, they went to Merchandising. Who -- to their surprise -- had no idea there was a story behind the Christmas Shop in Liberty Square.

After all, Walt Disney Imagineering charges premium prices to departments to go and tell them the story of their area. And -- in these budget conscious times -- departments can rarely afford the high WDI fees to teach their cast about how they fit into the story. There is a reason for the Christmas Shop to be designed the way it is and each room supports that story and how it fits into Liberty Square.

Fortunately, the writer of that storyline still works at Walt Disney World. Although he no longer in WDI, this former Imagineer had kept a copy of his work (which probably violates some Disney legal stipulation). And -- when he found out the situation -- he freely shared the information so that it could be recorded in the forthcoming book. (I wonder if the authors of the "Filed Guide" had the good sense to also ask this former Imagineer about the story behind Main Street's Confectionary Shop on Main Street. Since this cast member also contributed to that storyline ...)

Anyway .... What really got me steamed up to write this column is that they replaced the mailboxes on WDW's Main Street. Now why did that bother me? Because it is another indication that the folks in charge nowadays (no matter how good-hearted they may be) no longer understand the story that the Magic Kingdom is trying to tell. More importantly, that these people don't know who to ask to help them understand that story.

So what's the deal with Main Street's original mailboxes? Well -- back before the Magic Kingdom opened in October of 1971 -- the Imagineers bought all of those mailboxes from the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Now why is that important? Because Bridgeport, CT. was the home of P.T. Barnum and the American Circus. That East Coast city was part of the turn-of-the-century story about entertainment and parades that WDW's Main Street U.S.A. is trying to tell.

Those old mailboxes were recently replaced by mailboxes from Pennsylvania & New Hampshire. Now, I'll give WDI credit that they at least know that the Magic Kingdom's Mian Street area is supposed to reflect the East Coast of the United States (EX: How that theme park's train station is actually modeled after a similar station in Saratoga Springs, NY).

But there was a reason why the Bridgeport mailboxes were there in that theme park ... Even if not one guest noticed them. They were part of a delicate fabric of story that is sadly slipping away. As the Disney theme parks transform from setting the standard for everyone else in the themed entertainment industry to just cheap amusement parks that dis-satisfy guests.

Cast members who noticed this change were told that Main Street's original mailboxes were donated to a museum about Walt Disney. But no one seems to know if it is the Walt Disney Museum that Diane Disney Miller is currently having built on the Presidio or the museum that's under construction in Marceline or the one that's getting started in Kansas City or ... Whatever.

In the olden days at Disney Studio, there was very little documentation. Why? Well, if an aspiring animator wanted to know about "Steamboat Willie", then they could just drop by Ub Iwerks or Wilfred Jackson's office and ask them about the picture. After all, they were actually there when this history-making short was made. So they knew what was what.

Sadly, those living resources are now no longer with us. And I can't help but think that some documentation would have been nice to help the newest generation of aspiring animators get a handle on these classic characters.

The same is true of Imagineering. Fortunately, some Disney fans (NOT the Walt Disney Company) are now making an effort capture the memories of Bob Gurr, Rolly Crump and others before they move on to the big WED project in the sky. But so much history has already been lost.

Like what? Well, take -- for example -- this 1975 era interview with Disney Legend John Hench. A few years after WDW's Magic Kingdom opened, Hench was asked to reveal what the secret was to building a successful Disney theme park.

John's thoughts on the matter were recorded in a cast-member-only handbook that (sadly) has been out of print for nearly thirty years. The thoughts that you're about to read certainly aren't included in any modern day Disney theme park training material ... Which concentrate less on "Magic" and more on sexual harassment & blood-borne pathogens & never leavving a written record that could be used in court ...

Okay. Let me set the scene properly. It's an early morning in 1975. John Hench is standing in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom. And here is his response to a question from a WDW cast member. Who asked:

  • What makes a Disney theme park so special?
  • And why does Walt Disney Productions continue to strive to be a leader in the theme park industry and not just rest of its laurels?

Hench's reply went something like this:

"Well, this theme show idea really works at both the conscious and the subconscious levels in the guest's mind. There are a number of things that happen to them which they may very well remember...a ride...a personal contact with an employee...a lunch...a particular show...or any one of dozens of others. But equally important, if not more so, is the sum total of all the thousands of little details of which the guests are never quite fully aware...details working at the subliminal level.

Take Cinderella Castle, for instance. Most people walk up to this point and take a picture. In fact, more pictures are probably taken right here of that castle than anything else perhaps in the world. But if you walked up and asked a guest WHY he likes the castle...WHY is it worth photographing?... He could never tell you. He'd probably stammer out something like 'Because it's just beautiful'. And yet, when he gets back home and shows his pictures, the feeling will never be the same that he experiences simply standing here.

The fact is, as we stand here right now, there are literally hundreds of stimuli etching an impression...and an experience in our minds through every one of our senses. Probably the most conscious and obvious stimulus is visual...we are looking at that castle and we think it is beautiful. Yet consider the factors that are playing on our sense of vision....the colors...the lighting, the shapes and designs. There is a static nature about the castle structure itself that makes you think its been standing there for centuries. And yet there is motion...the motion of those flags, and the trees around us made by the wind. The movement of people, vehicles and boats, water, balloons, horses, and the white clouds passing by overhead.

Look up at the top of the castle. At the base of the highest tower are a series of tremendously detailed gargoyles which you can barely see from the ground. And yet they are also part of our 'magic formula'. They are part of a thousand little tiny details we are looking at right now but don't consciously perceive. Individually they are nothing. Collectively, they add up to a visual experience that the guest can't find anywhere else.

Now consider what is happening at this moment to our sense of hearing. As we stand here, we are hearing something that the best stereo or quad system in the world can't duplicate. We are hearing an ever-changing background: music, the sounds of waterfalls, horses' hooves, bells, a marching band, popcorn popping, and even the familiar crowd murmur that we usually sort of consciously tune out.

Think about the sense of touch...inanimate objects like this rockwork...animate objects like that horse pulling that trolley car. Or those Fantasyland characters in the castle's forecourt. Those things are not projected film---they are real. If you close your eyes, you can reach out and touch them...feel them.

Those flowers aren't plastic...you can smell them. That popcorn...you can go over and taste it.

Think about it carefully. As we stand here and look at that castle, every one of our senses are coming into play. This is total involvement. You can never capture this moment and take it home with you in a camera or tape recorder. You can only take this experience home in your mind. Now, multiply this moment by an entire day...by a week...by a thousand other different experiences...and you start to get some idea of the Disney theme show.

Of course, there are some limits to how far you can go in a theme experience. We don't want to add smoke to the fire effects in the Pirates of the Caribbean...that would be a negative stimulus. In our jungle we keep the real insects to a minimum. In Frontierland, we could be more authentic by making dirt streets, eliminating air conditioning in the buildings and replacing restrooms with outhouses. How many medieval castles ever had piped-in music or drinking fountains with chilled water? Frankly, if we created a totally perfect, authentic themed experience where we had complete realism, it would probably be ghastly for contemporary people living here in the 1970s.

What we create is a 'Disney Realism', sort of Utopian in nature, where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements. In fact we even go beyond realism in some cases to make a better show. Don't forget, people are coming here to be entertained...it is a show, you know. We create a world they can escape to...to enjoy for a few brief moments...a world that is the way they would like to think it would be.

The Jungle Cruise is a good example of what I'm talking about. It began in 1955 as an adaptation from our 'True Life Adventure' films. We created an attraction where all the things that you might see on a jungle river journey actually do happen. The truth of the matter is, you could probably spend two years on a real journey like that before you'd see everything.

Later, in selected Jungle Cruise scenes, we further enhanced the entertainment value by adding a touch of fantasy here and there. Take the elephant bathing pool, for example. Our guests know that real elephants wouldn't lurk under the water and then rise up to squirt the boat. And they know a real herd of elephants wouldn't be quite so happy with a strange boat in their midst. Real elephants would have either retreated defensively into the jungle or smashed the boat to pieces. But again, we've programmed Utopian realism, added a touch of fun and fantasy and the guest love it.

Interestingly, for all its success, the Disney theme show is quite a fragile thing. It just takes one contradiction...one out of place stimulus to negate a particular moment's experience. Take that street car conductor's costume away and put him in double knit slacks and a golf shirt....replace that old Gay Nineties melody with a rock number...replace the themed merchandise with digital clock radios and electric hair dryers...tack up a felt-tip drawn paper sign that says 'Keep Out'...place a touch of astro turf here...add a surly employee there...it really doesn't take much to upset it all.

What's our success formula? Well, it's attention to infinite detail...the little things, the minor picky points that other companies just don't want to take the time, the money, the effort, to do right. As far as our Disney organization is concerned...it's the only way we've ever done it...it's been our success formula in the past and it will be applied to our future projects as well. We'll probably still be explaining this to outsiders at the end of our next two decades in this business."

John's thoughts on the Disney theme show are just as important today as they were back in 1975. Maybe even more so. Since the very people who are in charge of the theme parks nowadays don't seem to know how important the littlest details can be.

I mean, if I thought it would help, I'd mail them a copy of today's article. But -- in order to send it -- I'd probably have to use one of those new mailboxes along WDW's Main Street U.S.A. And ... Well, let's not started on that again.

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  • Great, thank you for sharing the article. I will definitely watch this show

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